Death as a Means to Life

“I have come to know that it [death] is an important thing to keep in mind — not to complain or to make melancholy, but simply because only with the honest knowledge that one day I will die I can ever truly begin to live.”
—R.A. Salvatore, The Halfling’s Gem

As I prepared myself to meet the patients in Unit 3A for the first time on a Friday morning, I could not help but wonder how I would face the realities of these dying veterans. I have had the privilege of not experiencing death in my life yet so I had never truly attempted to grapple with this unsettling concept. Like many young adults caught up in the motions of everyday life, death was not something I pondered and thus something I didn’t fully understand. To me, death was nothing more than a melancholy event that marked the end of a person’s life.

I expected death to glare me straight in the face when I entered Unit 3A. I anticipated the mournful cries of families, the lifeless expressions on patients faces who were waiting for their last breaths, and the beeping sounds of ICU monitors flatlining. But the interactions that I had and the situations that I witnessed could not have been farther from what I had imagined. The patients that I visited were not engrossed with their impending deaths but were reflecting and reminiscing about their families, past careers, and experiences they have had in combat. Perhaps the most memorable patient I’ve met was Harry, a former electrical engineer and Korean War veteran who filled the floor with his exuberant and charming personality. Despite Harry’s deteriorating health, I learned a lot about his experiences in the war, his likes and dislikes, and even his skills at checkers. Like all the patients I’ve met on Unit 3A, I saw Harry as a person, not a patient. The humanity and character of these hospice patients were truly a pleasant surprise for me.

From my interactions with the veterans in Unit 3A, I’ve experienced more life than death. I learned that the veterans were so comfortable with living the short remainder of their lives and sharing their experiences with me because they have accepted and grappled with the honest knowledge of their inevitable deaths. As I listened to the many beautiful stories of marriages, child-rearing, and comradery in combat, I became captivated by the richness of their lives and forgot for a moment about their imminent deaths. From these veterans, I’ve learned through experience the importance of being comfortable with the idea of death. Only when one accepts the inevitability of death can one truly begin to live life without reservations and approach death without fear and regret. In the words of R.A. Salvatore, “death is an important thing to keep in mind” to be able to “truly live.” The interactions I’ve had in Unit 3A have taught me this invaluable lesson.